Marcello Lippi: toughest sheriff in town takes China to cusp of Asian Cup semi-finals
Ian Hawkey looks at career of no-nonsense manager with long and glittering CV - and resemblance to Paul Newman
The quickest route to praise for a football manager is via the telling substitution, about when they make them, who they choose, and how the changes affect outcomes.
At the moment, a ripple of applause around the world’s most populous nation is still audible for Marcello Lippi’s tinkerings on Sunday. His substitutions had a huge bearing on taking China to within 90 minutes of an Asian Cup semi-final.
Lippi brought on Xhao Zhi with China trailing Thailand 1-0 in their last-16 tie and with just over 25 minutes remaining. The 33-year-old striker is one of a few veterans in the squad and though Lippi will never hold age against a footballer he trusts, an important part of a manager’s skill is to calculate equations balancing physical stamina and psychological nous.
This substitution had maximum impact: Xhao equalised within three minutes. Lippi’s other seasoned striker, Gao Lin, who turns 33 next month, then won and converted a penalty four minutes afterwards.
It was enough to earn a place in Thursday’s quarter-final against Iran. And even though the side from the Middle East start as favourites, they are strongly advised there are potential surprises and plenty of strategic expertise on the China bench.
Lippi’s changes have been decisive in two comebacks at the Asian Cup so far - Yu Dabao, a substitute, helped turn a 1-0 deficit against Kyrgyzstan into a win in the opening group game - and endorsed the experienced and handsomely-salaried manager’s value.
Lippi will turn 71 in April, and this may turn out to be his last attempt at a major international prize. He has won several: a World Cup with Italy in 2006, an Uefa Champions League 10 years earlier with Juventus, and the Asian Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013.
There were five Serie A titles, too, with Juve in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period when the Italian top flight was acknowledged as the most competitive domestic league in the world.
You could pinpoint his telling substitutions through all those successes, recall changes such as Francesco Totti’s match-winning introduction for Italy in a tricky, tense last-16 World Cup tie against Australia, or Alessandro del Piero’s coming off the bench to settle a marvellous semi-final in that tournament against hosts Germany.
Lippi seldom looks anything less than a man with a plan, with a cool, masterly aura once vividly described by his long-time rival and friend, Alex Ferguson, with whom he had many touchline jousts when Juventus and Ferguson’s Manchester United were the top clubs in Italy and England.
"Looking into his eyes is enough to tell you that you are dealing with somebody who is in command of himself and his professional domain,” Ferguson wrote of Lippi. “Those eyes are sometimes burning with seriousness, sometimes twinkling, sometimes warily assessing you - and always they are alive with intelligence.
“Nobody could make the mistake of taking Lippi lightly,” Ferguson remarked, adding jokingly: “On top of all his other advantages, he is such a good-looking [expletive].”
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The movie-star looks remain, in Lippi’s eighth decade of life, and the resemblance to Paul Newman, the Hollywood actor of Butch Cassidy fame. The cigar, raised slowly to his lips, is no longer part of the image as it was in his Serie A heyday. But he still has the bearing of a local sheriff, stern but with a sympathetic streak.
“Lippi knows how to gain respect without being authoritarian,” according to Gennaro Gattuso, who won the World Cup under his watch.
Gattuso, now AC Milan manager, is one of many who learned from Lippi and tried to carry some of his traits into their own management careers. Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane, champion players at Juventus, are both disciples. To a degree, so is France manager Didier Deschamps.
“Lippi will always be straight with you,” Gattuso adds.
At the Asian Cup so far, his directness has sometimes sounded brutally critical: China depend on their veteran players, he said bluntly, too heavily because of a shortage of up-and-coming talent. There had been recurring symptoms, he added, ahead of the confrontation with Iran, of “a lack of focus, a need to be more concentrated".
He also knows how to pat his players on the back.
“We are in the quarter-finals, the top eight of Asia," he said, "and I have to be proud of these players for getting this far.”
Updated: January 24, 2019 01:40 PM